Riding with Du Bois

Railroads—in the Jim Crow South just as in today’s Ukraine—employ physical infrastructure to create racial divisions.

In the days after Russian military forces invaded Ukraine, African, Arab, and South Asian students tried to escape the fighting—like millions of others—but were not permitted to do so. Instead, these students were pulled off trains by officials at the Ukraine-Poland border.1 Once again, “Europe” marked not simply a geographic border but a racial divide. That this happened on railroads is no accident. Railroads, like other infrastructure, connect people, but they also divide and separate people. Material infrastructure shapes social divisions like race, which often manifest through intense suffering. In God’s Bits of Wood, his classic novel of the 1947–48 rail workers’ strike in French colonial Senegal and Mali, Ousmane Sembene wrote, “Real misfortune is not just a matter of being hungry and thirsty; it is a matter of knowing that there are people who want you to be hungry and thirsty.”2

How are borders produced through infrastructure that seems designed to break them down? On what basis do we defend our analyses of social reality and our proposals for social transformation? These are questions W. E. B. Du Bois asked in The Souls of Black Folk, decrying the “car window-sociologists” who theorized from the vantage of a segregated train car.3 In our own day, if we want to understand the relationships between material realities (like railroads) and ideas (like “Europe” and “Europeans”), we cannot treat the events at the Ukraine-Poland border as an exception. We must understand them as the rule. This is why Du Bois asserted to his readers, “If you wish to ride with me you must come into the ‘Jim Crow Car.’”4

Analyzing material and social divisions by riding with Du Bois is a method shared by two new books, Ethan Blue’s The Deportation Express and Julia H. Lee’s The Racial Railroad. Both follow Du Bois to reveal how racial divisions in the US have been made concrete through railroads. To ride with Blue, Lee, and, of course, Du Bois offers a view from within infrastructure that partitions the world along the color line.

Such a perspective can help us understand the relationships between borders, infrastructure, and the reconstitution of race in the context of war. It can help us understand race itself as a concept that requires intense and continual violence for its renewal. Taking a long view, we can begin to grasp underlying patterns in this process of renewal, knowledge that can offer strategic perspectives on resistance. “Racialized workers,” Blue explains of a century ago, “traversed the planet to build industrial infrastructures for empires that built barriers against them.” Following Du Bois, this can be the starting point for an analysis of the present and a proposal for a better path to take.

In his essay, “The Souls of White Folk,” Du Bois assessed the outbreak of World War I, “this sudden descent of Europe into hell.”5 In our own moment, the wartime hardening of racial borders is related to the expansion of fossil fuel production, the intensification of settler occupation, and the transfer of British, European, and US borders farther south, all under the banner of such ideals as “freedom,” “human rights,” and “democracy.” Guiding us through Du Bois’s methods for analyzing national and racial borders, these books can help us grasp underlying truths in this moment of war and structural crisis within capital’s home territories.

Trains employed for deportation—part of the infrastructure that operated through a eugenicist logic to expel “degenerates”—are the focus of Ethan Blue’s Deportation Express. Offering a richly empathetic history of these trains between 1914 and World War II, Blue describes how they functioned as mobile prisons. Immigration in the US, he writes, “is a story of leg irons, not bootstraps.”

Blue analyzes the archives of the US Immigration Bureau alongside the surveillance of radicals, corporate attacks on unionization efforts, and Progressive welfare surveillance of sexual mores within households and of individual workers’ mental and physical abilities to sustain the grueling demands of the jobs available to them. He integrates these strands of border control into an aggregate portrayal of the eugenicist dimensions of US border policy in the early 20th century. Immigration policy joined policing and proto-welfare policy to remove noncitizens variously defined as “degenerates” from US territory, ostensibly to defend the space of the nation, an imagined space of political, social, and biological purity.

Blue argues that precedents for US mass deportations were set in the history of Indigenous removal. Borders, he demonstrates, have been made in large part through immigration and deportation policies. Blue shows how the earlier US deportation regime emerged alongside a proto-carceral/welfare state, marking out the “‘beneficiaries’ of the national carceral/welfare systems and those noncitizens who would be shunted beyond it.” In the early 20th century, government officials investigated immigrants’ sex lives, which they “interwove with notions of racial danger, biological degeneracy, and physical and mental debility.”

How are borders produced through infrastructure that seems designed to break them down?

Even when railroads were not used to actively imprison and deport people, they catalyzed and strengthened racial divisions within the putative space of the “nation.” In The Racial Railroad, Julia H. Lee argues for “the surprisingly central role that the railroad has played—and continues to play—in the formation and perception of racial identity and difference in the United States.”

Lee examines affinities between narratives and images of American exceptionalism and railroads, both of which narrowly orient perspective through the perception of movement. She analyzes the phantom ride, an early cinematic genre involving single tracking shots of landscapes and train tracks, filmed from the front of a train, without showing the train itself. The phantom ride, she writes, “contains multiple oppositions that are fundamental to mythologies of the nation, particular[ly] in relation to the West. It has an endpoint and is at the same time endless, and it follows a track that dictates a passenger’s path but that cannot be seen past the horizon.” Lee examines visual narratives of trains in railroad advertisements, in film history, and in reenactments that are more historical criticism than historical. She examines narratives of Chinese degeneracy and Chinese American memory, of the survival and critique of Jim Crow, and of border crossings and the exploitation of migrant labor, all taking place on trains.

As in the history of deportation trains, these narratives and images claim sovereign imperatives to control land and bodies. Where Blue analyzes moments of resistance—when labor radicals on deportation trains used the journey to organize their fellow passengers—Lee analyzes skillful uses of trains to subvert US claims of sovereignty. For example, Jemez Pueblo artist Jaque Fragua has painted “Stop Coal” on freight trains and “This Is Indian Land” on temporary construction walls in Los Angeles. Transposing graffiti from urban subways to regional freight systems, Fragua’s work asserts that this is all Indian country.

Scholarship like Blue’s and Lee’s books offers valuable insights on how racism and exclusionary borders take shape through physical infrastructure. These insights can help us understand the terrible costs of war, and the true wages of peace, from the standpoint of the global majority.

Consider how Du Bois examined World War I, known as the “Great War,” as it was taking place: “War is horrible! This the dark world knows to its awful cost. But has it just become horrible, in these last days, when under essentially equal conditions, equal armament, and equal waste of wealth white men are fighting white men, with surgeons and nurses hovering near?”6

How did Du Bois understand the role of infrastructure in the “Great War”? What did he want us to see, from the vantage of the Jim Crow car?

Railroads were a core part of the infrastructure of 19th-century liberal imperialism, amplifying the development of the era’s other key industries, including telegraph, steel, lumber, coal, and steamships. Each rapidly consolidated into monopoly form, carving up the planet while seeking new arenas for growth. Competition among these monopolies catalyzed the “Great War.” Du Bois connected the violently legal enforcement of racial segregation on trains to the voracious consumption of racialized labor and the unrelenting extraction of resources from the darker world, for the enrichment of coteries of investors based in the major cities of Europe and North America. Competition among these cohorts, he argued, carried the violence they visited on their colonies into Europe itself.

In our own day—whether in Syria, the Congo, or Ukraine—war also involves key infrastructure. As in Du Bois’s time, this infrastructure extracts resources for the enrichment of investors in other places while fostering and hardening social divisions. How, for example, will Europe power its industry after placing Russia, its major gas supplier, under sanctions? Who will be collaborating to fulfill these resource needs, and at whose expense?

Even when railroads were not used to actively imprison and deport people, they catalyzed and strengthened racial divisions within the putative space of the “nation.”

The US has offered to supply Europe with liquified natural gas (LNG), which would replace natural gas from Russia, a crucial source of power for European industry. On January 28, President Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced collaborations to increase the supply of LNG from North America to Europe, requiring vast European investments in new transportation and storage facilities.7 On March 8, a senior White House official asserted that US fossil fuels production enshrines US independence, noting that “thousands of drilling permits on federal lands go unused,” while oil and gas production “is approaching record highs.”8 On March 25, the US committed to “maintaining an enabling regulatory environment” that would facilitate LNG export capacities. For its part, the EU agreed to accelerate European regulatory procedures to review and approve LNG import infrastructure, including onshore facilities, pipelines, storage ships, and LNG import terminals. In a strange echo of the guaranteed returns to investors on 19th-century colonial railroads in South Asia and Africa, the EU pledged to ensure a minimum demand of 50 billion cubic meters of LNG/year from the US “until at least 2030,” more than double 2021 imports and more than 3.5 times 2019 imports.9

Where will this LNG come from, and at what cost? On March 4, Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s deputy prime minister and minister of finance, proclaimed: “This is one of those times, and one of those places, where freedom confronts tyranny.”10

Three years earlier, on January 7, 2019, Canadian police had engaged in a military-style raid on Unist’ot’en Village, on unceded lands of the Wet’suwet’en nation in British Columbia. Anne Spice explains that Canadian police, working with natural gas corporations, violate their own laws by seeking to abrogate “the right of the Unist’ot’en people to control access to and use of their territory.”11 Coastal GasLink is only the latest pipeline to meet opposition as it seeks to traverse this land. In February 2020, Canadian police again raided Wet’suwet’en territories, seeking to remove a blockade of Indigenous land defenders. Spice insists, “Here is what we must remember. When the police patrol ancient trails, they are walking in a world in which they do not and cannot belong.”12

So, just whose freedom and whose tyranny did Freeland speak of? “Conceive this nation, of all human peoples,” Du Bois thundered, “engaged in a crusade to make the ‘World Safe for Democracy’!”13

Today’s deportation policies—as Blue and Lee make clear—shape the borders separating Europe from Africa, and the US from the Americas. On April 14, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel announced an “asylum partnership agreement” with Rwanda. According to the agreement, the UK government will remove people who arrive in Britain seeking asylum, by flights to Rwanda.14 The British government also promised £50 million of additional funding to monitor and police the English Channel.15 The announcement was immediately met with legal challenges. Like US railroads in the Jim Crow era, it should be understood as a testing ground for contemporary legalized racism.

For today’s asylum seekers, Priti Patel’s migration policy would shift the UK border to Rwanda. As Du Bois wrote in his essay “The White World,” “they have annexed the earth and hold it by transient but real power.”16

The Los Angeles Plan from the Biden administration joins earlier efforts to move the US border farther south. Narratives of US expansion, as Lee charts, are often remembered along a westward orientation. However, proponents of American slavery consistently advocated expansion southward, from the “Deep South” states on into the Caribbean and Latin America.

On June 10, after its failed Summit of the Americas, the administration released the “Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection.” Signatories claimed to “value the tradition of our region in welcoming refugees and migrants and showing solidarity with our neighbors.”17 Against this idea, a senior official informed the press that “President Biden is asking all governments along the migratory route to establish and fortify asylum processing in each of their respective countries while more effectively enforcing their borders, conducting screenings, and removing those individuals who do not qualify for asylum.”18

Key to the declaration is reframing refugee settlement, family reunification, and other “legal channels for migration” as solutions to address “critical labor shortages.” This will involve an expansion of temporary work visas for agricultural and service labor.19 Biden’s 2022 immigration plan renews George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservative” proposal for temporary guest worker programs during the 2000 presidential election.

Both proposals are deeply rooted in US history. For example, Ethan Blue analyzes how US immigration authorities policed and deported immigrant labor radicals in Butte, Montana, on behalf of copper barons. A “Fact Sheet” on the Los Angeles Declaration further clarifies that the US Department of Agriculture will launch a $65 million “pilot program” to provide grants to agricultural employers that temporarily hire Central American farmworkers. The US also pledged to provide an additional 11,500 nonagricultural seasonal work visas for Central Americans and Haitians, coordinating with Walmart and other employers.20

There are deep historical precedents for US border policy made in the interests of monopoly corporations. Blue notes that the early 20th-century deportation regime, like Biden’s proposal, “could permit selected people tenuous admission, but on the condition of deportability when they or their work was no longer deemed politically or economically necessary.”


Migrant Lives, Global Stories

By Jeremy Adelman et al.

These books present useful information for building a genuinely peaceful, genuinely democratic future for our species, and our planet. Ethan Blue writes about how a sense of the “inside” and “outside” of US society and territory was created through the targeted surveillance, detention, and deportation of migrants with racial, sexual, biological, and political qualities earmarked for exclusion. Julia H. Lee recounts how narratives and images of railroads, in turn, defined the qualities of the US as a nation. Crucially, both authors offer perspectives on how these processes were contested and on proposals and practices for other ways of being in relation.

What is the nature of war in this moment? Where is the urgency for peace? “What of the darker world that watches?” asked Du Bois.21 Racist border violence, colonial invasions, and ecological destruction: these, too, are front lines of the war.


This article was commissioned by A. Naomi Paikicon

  1. “African Students in the Ukraine Plead for Help as Poland Says ‘Ukrainians First,’” Amsterdam News, March 1, 2022; Alex Čizmić, “African expats say Ukraine is racist, but it’s home,” New Frame, March 24, 2022.
  2. Ousmane Sembene, God’s Bits of Wood (Heineman, 1970), p. 53.
  3. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Vintage, 1990), p. 101.
  4. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, p. 84.
  5. W. E. B. Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (Verso, 2016), p. 20.
  6. Du Bois, Darkwater, 22.
  7. White House, Joint Statement by President Biden and President von der Leyen on U.S.-EU Cooperation on Energy Security, January 28, 2022.
  8. White House, Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on Announcement of U.S. Ban on Imports of Russian Oil, Liquefied Natural Gas, and Coal, March 8, 2022.
  9. Fact Sheet: White House, United States and European Commission Announce Task Force to Reduce Europe’s Dependence on Russian Fossil Fuels, March 25, 2022.
  10. Chrystia Freeland, “Ukraine Has Shaken the World’s Older Democracies Out of Our Malaise,” Financial Times, March 4, 2022.
  11. Anne Spice, “The Wet’suwet’en aren’t Just Protecting ‘The Environment,’” Asparagus Magazine, July 23, 2019.
  12. Anne Spice, “blood memory: the criminalization of Indigenous land defense,” Critical Ethnic Studies, vol. 7, no. 1 (2021).
  13. Du Bois, Darkwater, 19–20.
  14. Memorandum of Understanding Between the Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of the Republic of Rwanda for the Provision of an Asylum Partnership Arrangement, April 14, 2022.
  15. UK Home Office, “World First Partnership To Tackle Global Migration Crisis,” April 14, 2022.
  16. W. E. B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 77.
  17. White House, Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, June 10, 2022.
  18. White House, Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official Previewing the Summit of the Americas Migration Deliverables and Accomplishments, June 10, 2022.
  19. White House, Background Press Call, Migration Deliverables and Accomplishments.
  20. White House, The Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection U.S. Government and Foreign Partner Deliverables, June 10, 2022.
  21. Du Bois, Darkwater, 27.
Featured image: Celebration of completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad at what is now Golden Spike National Historic Site, Promontory Summit, Utah (1869). Photograph by Andrew J. Russell. Courtesy of National Park Service / Library of Congress